On Extratextual Scholarship: Dietmar Offenhuber’s Wegzeit

I want to more fully situate what I’ve begun to talk about in this space in terms of the potential for extratextual scholarship – that is, academic work that falls outside the prototypical medium of text. In what follows, I’ll review Dietmar Offenhuber’s Wegzeit: The Geometry of Relative Distance and tie it back into extratextual scholarship at the end of the post.

Wegzeit explores different metrics for the city that resist our conventional definitions of distance (such as the time involved or the miles traveled). The alternative approaches the project, representing Los Angeles, highlights involve what Offenhuber terms as video traces, path networks, area cells, velocity zones, rush hour slopes, and way descriptions. These measures, respectively, describe the city through panorama, tension, density, pace, asymmetry, and diction. Offenhuber identifies the visualization of the everyday and the subjective within the city as the project’s goal and offers claims toward emerging “cultural techniques” primarily through his proposed measures. The project advocates the use of these measures towards investigating the operations of subjectivity in urban environments.

Vectors, a multimedia online journal focused on teasing out the conventional text-based preoccupations of the academy, hosts the project. One of the most intriguing components of Vectors’ presentation of Wegzeit is a peer response forum wherein scholars comment on project. Vectors provides such a peer review section for each project it publishes.

Wegzeit contributes a great deal to the study of communications and media and extends much of what that line of research has already yielded. Like Offenhuber, critical communications scholars rely on theories of space and place that consider the everyday over the historical in addressing the role of media in urban environments. These theories include those of prominent scholars like Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau. Moreover, Offenhuber’s project addresses how people typically communicate their experience of place through fairly standard measurements like, as previously mentioned, the duration of time and miles travelled. Not coincidentally, both are also critical to capitalism and industrialization, with efficiency being the ultimate goal.

Wegzeit, however, also falls prey at times to these very formations, and the peer review section discusses this considerably. The peer reviewers converge around the universalizing nature of the project, as it does not critically engage with how identity dimensions like race, class and gender enter in to the subjective experience of the city. Additionally, criticism arises in this section over the “car-centric” nature of Offenhuber’s proposed alternative metrics, which excludes other means of travel in the city that likely come with different subjective experiences. Wegzeit does counter the standards of industrial efficiency and how they encroach on the everyday with the aims of organizing the everyday toward productive ends. But Offenhuber’s reliance on the car in some of his metrics and the position of the car in industrial history cannot be ignored.

Despite these criticisms, Wegzeit aligns with a great deal of other mapping projects that counter the ideals of efficiency inscribed into popular mapping platforms. Two particular projects that come to mind are It takes 154,000 breaths to evacuate Boston and UrbanGems, a site used to map the most scenic rather than the most efficient routes through select cities. But those are certainly not the only projects to investigate these ends. This broader theme signals the potential of the extratextual to launch critical engagement with typical modes of measurement in relation to space, particularly in everyday contexts.

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